Richmond-based artist and VCU professor Michael-Birch Pierce has received international recognition for his embroidered portraits

“The act of creating is the act of connecting.” That was the theme of Richmond-based artist and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Michael-Birch Pierce’s TEDxRVA talk in 2013, and that desire for connection continues to define much of his work.

Since working on his MFA in fibers in 2012 at Savannah College of Art and Design, Pierce has achieved impressive international recognition through his free-motion embroidered portraits. He conceived of the idea of using a sewing machine to turn a single thread into a portrait while working on his degree. In fact, the technique came about almost by accident. During his first semester of graduate school, Pierce had the opportunity through a Savannah College of Art and Design alum who was hired by the Obamas to embroider Christmas ornaments for the Obama White House. “When I was working on this massive commission,” Pierce says, “the wheels were turning.”

The artist started to wonder whether he needed to sketch out his design ahead of time or if he could just create it on the sewing machine. To test the possibilities, Pierce brought models into his studio and quickly realized that he liked the energy of the quick, continuous line. “My background in figure drawing and fashion illustration translated with sewing skills to fuse together in a unique talent,” he says.

Pierce’s talent has made him a fixture at events everywhere, from Quirk Hotel in Richmond and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York to Art Basel, a world-leading art show, and, this past spring, the Night Before the Oscars Party hosted by the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

The portraits take only a few minutes to create, but as Pierce embroiders, he interacts with the sitter, a metal machine providing an opportunity for this authentic connection.

“While I’m making the portrait, we talk about why they’re there and their connection to sewing; we might have a conversation about a memory of watching their grandmother sew quilts,” Pierce says. “I am studying intimately every line of this stranger’s face, and that gaze tears down walls.”

Though Pierce likes to keep the focus on the sitter, attention inevitably turns to the artist himself. One can’t help but be mesmerized by the fast but gentle movement of his hands as he works the line of the thread to depict the person seated in front of him. At the 2018 Oscars party, he found himself seated with actresses Marcia Gay Harden and Camryn Manheim. “You’re a genius,” they told him. Pierce was flattered, but he wanted to focus on them. “They are literal geniuses,” he says, gushing. Besides, Pierce says, “talking about me is not necessarily my interest.”

Pierce often tries to shift attention to the sitter, but he acknowledges that the work of creating these embroidered portraits is also about the performance and his own identity.

“I really think about interpersonal interaction and how identity changes depending on who you’re with,” Pierce says. “I’m putting on my Michael-Birch version of who I am, and I have to think about my identity for each event.” That conscious self-presentation translates to rocking a beaded dress at the Oscars party but donning a stylish suit for a Shaquille O’Neal event.

Since studying fashion design as an undergrad at VCU, Pierce has been fascinated by questions of identity and the way fashion enables people to manufacture a sense of self.

“It all connects to this idea of my constructed identity as queer person and having to decide which version of myself to present,” Pierce says. As he explains to his students, this creation of self also relates to being able to find work. “If you know how to network and engage people in conversation, you’re somebody people want to work with,” Pierce says.

Engaging people is important not only for his embroidered portraits but also for the art he painstakingly creates by himself in his studio. For many of his works, Pierce embroiders sparkly rhinestones and jewels that pour out of an antique frame or a mirror, thereby consciously breaking the space between viewer and artist.

“I like to bring the viewer into it, so they can become part of the work,” he says.

Whether creating free-motion embroidered portraits on the spot or embroidering rhinestones alone in his studio, Pierce seeks to draw others in. As Pierce said in his TEDxRVA talk: “Art shouldn’t be created in a vacuum.”

Catherine Brown writes about the arts, parenting, health and interesting people for local and national publications. She can be reached at writercatherinebrown@gmail.com.